Barry Gardiner speaking at Greener UK event on sustainable trade after Brexit
Barry Gardiner speaking at Greener UK event on sustainable trade after Brexit

On 18th October, Barry gave a keynote speech at a panel event held by Greener UK on the topic of sustainable trade after Brexit. A copy of the speech can be read below:

Thank you, Shaun, for your introduction – and thank you to Greener UK.

Thank you to all your members and for the superb work you have done in keeping a watchful eye on the government and the parliamentary process around the Brexit negotiations and their implications for the natural environment.

I know that, collectively, you boast almost 8 million members. That is a powerful electoral base and you need to mobilise it to ensure that  at this critical moment, as we leave the EU, the environmental protections and safeguards that we have built up painstakingly over the last 40 years does not become undermined by a de-regulatory agenda that some on the extreme right of our politics have long desired.

But politically we would be making a huge mistake if we simply imagine that success lies in securing a roll-over of what we currently have in the EU. Non-regression is an important battle to win. But it is not the war.

We should be acutely aware that Brexit – by opening up our ability to negotiate our own trade agreements with other countries – exposes us to new threats as well as to some possible opportunities.

You may recall, in his first speech as Environment Secretary, Michael Gove portrayed our exit from the EU as an ‘unfrozen moment’. He said it meant “taking back control of environmental policy”.

Now those of us who recalled how for the past eight years the UK government has resisted implementing the Ambient Air Quality Directive, may have thought at the time that taking back control of environmental policy from Brussels was not necessarily a good thing. And may I, in passing, congratulate Greener UK on the Brexit Risk Tracker which has highlighted many of the dangers that we are currently facing not just with air pollution but also with the REACH Directive and the water framework directive and the failure to ensure that the duties of compliance extend beyond ministers of the crown to public authorities as well.

Now I’m not one to spoil a good romance and I know that many environmentalists have (to paraphrase the Beatles) let Michael Gove  “whisper in your ear. Say the words you long to hear”

Not quite : “I’m in love with you”, but “public money for public goods”. He has claimed that environmental protections after Brexit will not be weakened.

But to continue the love story analogy: For every Odette there is an Odile and the black swan to Gove is of course Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for International Trade.

He too sees Brexit as a repatriation of power. But what taking back control looks like to Fox is something rather different to what Gove has spoken about.

Last April, secret documents belonging to a senior civil servant in the Trade Department were photographed on a train by a member of the public and leaked to the press.  The notes read, “Trade and growth are now priorities… economic security-related work like climate change and illegal wildlife trade will be scaled down”. The only surprise in that news story is that the document was classified. The Trade Secretary’s disdain for the environment is the worst kept secret in Westminster.

Just last week Business Insider magazine broke a news story about how a post Brexit trade deal with the USA could mean consumers being given the opportunity to eat rat hairs or maggots in common items of food shopping. The truth is that in any trade agreement there has to be some common acceptance of the standards which each country is prepared to accept for goods coming into its market.

Last year Wilbur Ross the US Trade Secretary came to the CBI conference and said precisely that: The US would give us a really good trade deal – but we would have to move our regulations closer to those of the United States to get it.

No surprise then that exactly one week later Michel Barnier said that if we wanted to have a good trade deal with the EU post Brexit, we would have to keep our regulations closely aligned with the EU!

But how can we square this circle: Gove says no relaxation of our food safety or product standards and his counterpart is working towards the acceptance of the United States “Defect Levels Handbook” which allows up to 30 insect fragments in a 100 gram jar of peanut butter or 11 rat hairs in a 25 gram packet of paprika. Or my personal favourite: 3 milligrams of rat droppings per pound of Ginger!

Yum? No – yeuch!

Just for clarity the EU acceptance level of all of these is ZERO!

Well this is where Gove’s brain is at its most agile. We will not allow this new level of defects in food produced in the UK – after all we have promised to keep our product standards high. BUT we may allow you to buy the American produce that is produced to a lower tolerance level and is therefore cheaper. That is not a lowering of our standards, it is simply “Consumer Choice”!

Well, choice is a fine thing, but choices can be constrained. If you are a parent struggling under austerity to feed your children then cost is a rather important constraint. And of course, it is only a choice if you actually know what the difference is and what produce comes from which regulatory regime. That is why we have tended to say that good labelling is important. But of course labelling requirements are seen by Liam Fox and his friends as anti-competitive “Non-Tariff Barriers.”

During the passage of the Trade and the Customs Bill through the House of Commons we pointed out that the government intends to use Henry VIII powers to override parliamentary democracy and could impose lower food standards in the UK. So that they can sign wide-ranging free trade deals with countries with lower standards. And thus commences the flood of, hormone-treated beef, insect-filled chocolates, rat-hair infested noodles, and freshly squeezed orange juice with all the bits – maggot bits, that is. And as Liam Fox said in Washington when asked about allowing chlorine washed chicken into the UK.  “We will not lower our safety standards – but there is nothing unsafe about chicken washed in chlorine”.

Well No, that is true. But the reason you have had to wash it in chlorine in the first place is because it has been reared so intensively that at slaughter it is stuffed full of pathogens and you have to wash it in a bath of chlorine to make it safe to eat.

In Europe we tend to prefer animal welfare and husbandry standards that mean when it is slaughtered it is not stuffed full of pathogens in the first place.

I do not believe that Gove and Fox are in collision with each other. They are in collusion with each other. And we need to wake up to the fact. They have both been the most ardent of Brexit Leavers because they both fundamentally believe in a new deregulated global trade order.

But this is not just unacceptable ethically and environmentally. It actually is counter-productive from an economic point of view. People around the world in China or India, do not seek out and buy British products because they are the cheapest – they buy British products because they trust them and know they are of high quality. By removing our environmental and food quality standards, this Tory government will not boost business – they will undercut it.

It doesn’t have to be like this. There’s a version of Brexit that can reconcile an open-facing, ambitious international trade agenda with the need to protect the natural world through raised environmental standards. But to understand what that looks like and how to get there, you have to begin from a very different place.

As a society, we too readily forget that whilst trade has brought many benefits to the people of the world it has also not been without costs – particularly to the natural world. It is a legacy that stretches back hundreds of years. From the 16th Century and the birth of global exploration; the beginnings of colonialism and the era of slavery.

And with the advent of globalisation, the sixth mass extinction began. The furs of the sea mink, the meat of passenger pigeons, the rich subcutaneous fat of Steller’s sea cow. All now gone the way of the Dodo. The engine of trade fuelled the commodification of living things.

Today, trade despoils the natural world in more accelerated and insidious ways. Be it non-native invasive species that are swept into cargo holds or reside in the ballast of ocean going vessels, only to emerge in new habitats where they wreak havoc on native populations. Our demand for basic goods like timber, soy, palm oil, cocoa and paper, which drives the destruction of millions of hectares of precious forest ecosystems across the globe. Or even through the planes and freight ships that carry goods around the planet, pumping ever more carbon dioxide into our atmosphere, hastening the breakdown of our global climate.

The correlation between rising Trade & Consumption – and Environmental decline is one that must be broken.

But millions of people’s jobs depend on our continuing trade into overseas markets. Our nation is built on the back of strong international trade. Exports make up 30 per cent of our GDP. And as a party, Labour is absolutely in favour of Fair and Open trade and investment. But what is equally clear is that we cannot continue business as usual.

We no longer live in business as usual times. Last week, the global scientific community sounded the alarm. We have just twelve years to avert dangerous climate change. In the words of the report by the IPCC, only “rapid and far-reaching” changes to how we run our economy will be sufficient to avoid the most catastrophic global warming scenarios.

What impact did this have in Whitehall? Two days after the IPCC published their report, the government made an announcement that flew in the face of its evidence. UK Export Finance – the department responsible for boosting British exports abroad – said that it was considering financing the multi-billion-pound expansion of an oil refinery in Bahrain.

This is nothing new. Last year, UK Export Finance announced 400 million dollars in support for a General Electric Oil and Gas contract to develop oil and gas fields 60 kilometres off Ghana’s coast.

In fact, 99.4 per cent of the UK’s export credit financing for energy in developing countries goes to fossil fuels. That’s nearly 3 billion pounds worth of financing for fossil fuel projects. UK Export Finance’s massive fossil fuel involvement undermines our commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change. It makes a complete mockery of our international pledge, as a G20 member, to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies. There is no plan to reduce UK Export Finance’s support to oil and gas. In fact, the government denies the very existence of any subsidies to the fossil fuel industry.

Instead of being in thrall to the fossil fuel sector, it’s time for the UK to take a leading role in the transition to a zero-carbon future. The UK’s renewable energy sector deserves support to grow to a world-leading scale. There’s tremendous potential. Last year our offshore wind exports were worth 500 million pounds. By 2030, this could increase fivefold. The UK’s low carbon and renewable energy exports alone were worth almost 4 billion pounds in 2016. The value of it is already roughly half the value of the UK’s market share of defence exports – an industry that the Government has warmly embraced as a trade priority, with even the Prime Minister planning her holiday diary around defence sales trips to Saudi Arabia and Jordan to discuss ‘trade and security’. Yet a Brexit that saw us out of the ETS and the Internal Energy Market would cost us half a billion in lost auction revenues and increase consumer bill costs by another half billion. And that is before you even consider the loss to green investment from being outside the European Investment Bank.

The opportunities of the green economy are being squandered by the Department for International Trade. A Labour government will get our priorities right. We will promote UK Export Finance support for energy towards low carbon projects in place of its overwhelming support for fossil fuel projects in previous years. And as part of our commitment to a low-carbon future, we will actively support international negotiations towards an Environmental Goods Agreement at the World Trade Organisation. Labour will use trade negotiations to boost market access for British environmental goods and services, alongside support for investment into new green technologies and innovative low-carbon products.

The Paris Agreement has set the scene – the global markets are turning towards the low-carbon future. Labour wants Britain to be at the forefront of this new climate economy, a true global leader recognised as such. That’s why we’re committed to a target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. And we want our trade agenda to work with, not against, that ambition.

To do that, we want negotiations towards new trade deals after Brexit to include the most powerful provisions for environmental standards. During the passage of the Trade Bill through Parliament this year, Labour put forward specific amendments that would have ensured our future trade agreements do not conflict with, and are consistent with the United Kingdom’s environmental obligations in international law, as established by but not limited to the Paris Agreement adopted under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the Convention on Biological Diversity, including the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety; and, of course, the provisions of the Sustainable Development Goals.

The Government voted down those amendments. But where we need to head is clear. Just the other day, Canada and the EU added a climate clause to their trade deal, CETA, agreeing to “promote the mutual supportiveness of trade and climate policies”. OK, so it’s hardly an enforceable, legally binding contract. And it’s unlikely that EU Member States will go along with the French proposal to make non-compliance with the Paris Agreement grounds for suspension. But what we are seeing is governments gradually warming to the notion that we must link climate policy with trade policy. And it makes the Tories’ reluctance to do so look outdated.

The trade regimes of the past were beholden to the idea that corporate interests should trump those of public policy and public interest. But that spells disaster for our planet. A few years ago, the energy company TransCanada went to court using investor-state dispute settlement provisions to claim that the Obama administration’s failure to approve Keystone XL violated US obligations under NAFTA. The company asked for 15 billion dollars in compensation from US taxpayers.

Through provisions such as ISDS, trade policy has the capacity to erode our sovereignty. That’s not what taking back control looks like. That’s why Labour opposes parallel investor-state dispute systems for multinational corporations.

And instead of trade policy sorted out behind closed doors in secret courts, we want an open and accessible trade agenda. Labour is absolutely committed to engagement with civil society as a further element in the proper democratic scrutiny of international treaties. We want to see ongoing consultation with civil society at all stages of the development of a trade agreement. And we want to ensure proper transparency and parliamentary scrutiny of all future trade and investment deals.

That’s why, during the passage of the Trade Bill, we tabled amendments that demanded a sustainability impact assessment of each proposed trade deal should be laid before Parliament following consultation with government agencies, non-governmental organisations and the public. And it demanded that the assessment shall include both qualitative and quantitative assessments of the potential impacts of the proposed trade agreement on the environment, including but not restricted to the need to protect and preserve the oceans, biodiversity, the rural environment and air quality, and the need to meet the UK’s international obligations to combat climate change.

By commissioning full and independent sustainability impact assessments of each new trade agreement at the earliest stage in future negotiations, we can have a sense of the potential impact on environmental standards across the various sectors of the economy.

But more than that, there also needs to be a standing procedure for ongoing parliamentary review of trade and investment agreements during their lifetime, including ex post assessment of their social, economic and environmental impacts to sit alongside the ex ante sustainability impact assessment. We tabled an amendment to the Trade Bill that would have required the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament a review of the operation and impacts of each free trade agreement. Each such review would have been laid before Parliament no later than ten years from the day on which the agreement comes into force – and every ten years thereafter. And the review would have replicated the work of the sustainability impact assessments, with both qualitative and quantitative assessments of the impacts of the agreement including, as a minimum, the impacts on the environment such as our oceans, biodiversity, air quality and the need to tackle climate change.

All these amendments were voted down by the government. What is at stake is far greater than profit, or even our environmental quality. It is a fight for the identity of our country. And to make my point, let me leave you with this thought.

The trade policy that our government adopts will impact our farming communities perhaps more than any other single group. The challenge will come as our agricultural industry is tested in the forge of competitive imports from the new trading relationships that we develop outside the EU. How well our farming communities adapt depends on what trade agenda the UK Government adopts.

As we emerge from the EU, the UK will need to finalise trade agreements expeditiously with non-EU partners. The UK has already initiated ‘pre-negotiation’ discussions with include significant agricultural exporters. For example, 68% of New Zealand’s exports, 19% of Australia’s, and 15% of Canada’s exports are agricultural products.

It is inconceivable that these countries would be interested in a trade negotiation with the UK if so much of their exports would not be considered for favourable market access. The reality is that British agricultural produce will soon be competing with more New Zealand dairy, Australian beef and Canadian pork in a manner that they never experienced as part of the EU.

Many consumers will undoubtedly rejoice as increased competition leads to reduced costs and greater choice. And it is true that trade policy is always a balance between the consumer interest and the producer interest. But cheap food is not much of a consolation if you have lost your job as a result of the influx of cheap competition.

If British farmers are no longer able to eke out a living farming sheep in the uplands what will our hillsides look like without their land management? Will the Lake District and the Welsh hills become a sheep-free zone returned once again to woodland and forest? Of course, for some environmentalists and advocates of rewilding this would be very much desirable. But regardless, the shape of our land from the beef and dairy pastures of County Down around Strangford Lough to the hillsides of the Yorkshire Dales at lambing time – these are the landscapes that make the UK who we are. They provide not just jobs for farmers, but jobs in the tourist industry. Our green and pleasant land, a heritage woven into the DNA of our cultural identity.

That is what is at stake with Brexit. Yes, leaving the EU is a pivotal moment to restore and enhance the UK’s environment. But in the modern world, trade policy is a tremendous force that has the power to remould the very fabric of our country. Our environment is integral to that. It is the bedrock of our economy, security and wellbeing.

Last week I went over to Geneva to the WTO Forum. I was launching a new international initiative. I had invited the Indian and Spanish trade Ministers and the Director of the International Labour Organisation. And in front of a packed room we set out a new progressive agenda around what we call “Just Trading”. It has sustainability at its heart. We want trade deals that do not seek to rapaciously exploit the weaker partner country. We do not see trade as a competition to beat the other side down. We know that is not just morally wrong. It makes no economic sense. We don’t want cheap raw materials and goods that have paid starvation wages to workers. On the contrary, we want to raise the wage levels of workers in our partner countries, so they can afford to buy more of our goods and services – to create a virtuous cycle of prosperity and development that will set the foundation on which we can build a truly sustainable future.

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